The goal of each college football program is to maximize its roster spots. Recruiting efforts serve as the lifeblood of this process and, continuing a theme here, maximizing each class is paramount to building a perennial championship contender.
It’s easy to invest in 5-star prospects who appear primed to play the same position until they eventually hang up their cleats. But coaching staffs create new wrinkles, and gain flexibility across the field, when they buy into the potential of a player who might progress into a variety of roles.
Penn State’s latest recruiting class, and how James Franklin’s staff handles the roster, makes it apparent this is a program willing to think outside the box regarding player development.
“The guys that we’re recruiting are that-level athletes,” Franklin said Dec. 20 during an early signing period media session. “They should be able to dominate on both sides of the ball in high school, and there should be some flexibility once they get here. Corners that we think could be safeties. Corners that could be wide receivers. Wide receivers that could be corners. What you’re really trying to do is say, yeah, this guy could be successful on either side of the ball, this is where we think he could bring the most value at Penn State and the most value for himself long-term.”
For every instant-impact freshman in college football, there are far more athletes who require a long and winding road to settle in at their ideal landing spot.
Perhaps the most prime example from 2017 was West Virginia Mountaineers standout David Sills. Once viewed as a quarterback prodigy — Sills verbally committed to Southern Cal at 13 years old — he ultimately failed to make his mark at the position in Power 5 and junior college action before transitioning full-time to receiver last year.
Seven years after Sills entered the national spotlight for his promise as a passer, he caught 18 touchdowns in 2017 and earned first-team All-America honors.
Obviously this is an extremely positive result of positional flexibility, but you can find more modest examples at Penn State.
Ryan Bates and Connor McGovern have excelled in various spots along the offensive line. Koa Farmer transitioned from safety to outside linebacker, and enters 2018 as the team’s returning leader in tackles. Running back Saquon Barkley spent much of 2017 leading the Big Ten in receptions, and added kick returner duties to his repertoire as a junior. Top-ranked 2017 signee Lamont Wade slides from cornerback to safety this spring.
And then there is Tommy Stevens, a player who has proved so versatile that new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne created a new position on the depth chart called Lion.
“We have a guy with a unique skill set,” Rahne said. “Instead of pigeon-holing him into one position, we’re giving him an opportunity to name it and show all the things he can do.”
Stevens, a rising redshirt junior who likely would claim first-team reps at quarterback for the significant majority of Power 5 programs, accounted for 9 touchdowns in three different ways last season. The team’s 2017 spring game offensive MVP, he logged 27 passes, 27 rushes and 12 receptions.
The player currently blocking Stevens’ path as a passer also once impressed as a multi-position prospect. Franklin initially recruited record-setting Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley at safety during his Vanderbilt days.
While discussing recruiting tactics after finalizing a 2018 class that ranks higher than any Penn State has signed, Franklin addressed his staff’s approach.
“The guys that we’re recruiting really should have the flexibility that we’re talking about,” he said. “You watch [redshirt sophomore guard] Michal Menet’s high school tape ― his defensive line high school tape was impressive. I think he can play here on the defensive line. I think he has a higher ceiling on the offensive line. [Defensive coordinator Brent] Pry came up to me the other day in practice watching [redshirt freshman guard] C.J. Thorpe, and said, ‘Hey, we’ll take that guy at nose [tackle].'”
Franklin admitted this is a regular occurrence during discussions with his defensive coordinator.
“Well, just so you know ― every player on our team, Coach Pry thinks should be playing defense and should be playing linebacker,” he said.
Linebacker is where you’ll find three newly enrolled Penn State players: Jesse Luketa, Micah Parsons and Nick Tarburton.
Franklin surprised many when he announced Parsons, considered the premier weakside defensive end prospect in America, will start his collegiate career at middle linebacker.
“We’re going to play Micah Parsons at Mike linebacker this spring and see how that goes,” he said. “We know he can move back to defensive end. But we’re going to have him here for spring ball and see if he can do that.”
This is a coach who embraces the search for a player’s highest ceiling, and increased roster depth helps facilitate those efforts. The Nittany Lions have an impressive stockpile of experienced talent at defensive end, while middle linebacker is more of an unknown commodity following the departure of team captain Jason Cabinda.
Franklin also referenced Parsons’ dominance at the prep level. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Harrisburg (Pa.) High School product averaged 11.4 yards per carry as a senior en route to 1,239 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns.
That experience isn’t simply discarded. It’s ingrained as a resource for the next phase of his football evolution.
“I always think the best linebackers played high school running back as well,” Franklin said. “There are really a lot of similarities in terms of our running back hitting the hole, and the instincts of knowing what hole to hit, and a linebacker knowing how to fit. It’s very similar.”
Tarburton is a transition candidate who could contribute in the defensive trenches. Listed at 6-3, 243 pounds, he has history at defensive end and is open to the possibility of continuing his career in a 3-point stance if that’s what Penn State roster needs necessitate.
“We got a guy like Tarburton who creates flexibility with linebacker or defensive line, which is how he was recruited. I feel really good about that,” Franklin said.
There’s that word again: flexibility.
Franklin said it’s a common theme within his latest Nittany Lions recruiting class.
“That’s across the board. I could make the argument for a bunch of these guys,” he said. “I think [defensive tackle] Judge Culpepper could play tight end, probably. I think [receiver] Jahan Dotson could play defensive back. I think [receiver] Daniel George, you watch his high school tape, and I think some of his most impressive plays are at safety.”
Expect these features to remain a point of emphasis as Penn State searches for its next wave of impact athletes. The staff’s track record of having an open mind regarding positional outlook should strike a chord with young, ambitious recruits such as Pittsburgh area standout Derrick Davis Jr.
“Penn State told me I might be another Micah Parsons and that my ability to play around everywhere is unbelievable,” Davis told Land of 10’s Ryan Donnelly. “I might mess around and go to linebacker or safety.”